08 Oct 2018

A-Class sedan 2018 first drive review

We drive Mercedes' tech-laden small sedan
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Could this be your first new Mercedes-Benz? The brand certainly hopes so. Pitched as an entry-point to the marque, the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class brings big-car tech, luxury and safety features in a compact package.

Vehicle Style: Small sedan

On test: A220

Engine/trans: 142kW/300Nm, 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol | 7spd dual-clutch automatic, front-wheel drive

OVERVIEW

No longer a poor cousin to larger Mercedes-Benz models, the new A-Class is intended to offer everything you’ll find in a bigger ‘Benz. It is fair to say previous models have carried something of a stigma, whether due to the minivan-shaped original’s highly publicised failure to negotiate a Swedish emergency moose avoidance test, or a price-driven race to the bottom with luxury rivals resulting in sub-$40k machines which weren’t representative of the ideal Mercedes ownership experience.

We’ve already tested the A-Class in hatchback form, coming away impressed with interior presentation and infotainment tech which sends it to the top of the class.

We don’t know how much the new sedan will cost, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see generously-specced models (as pictured) push well beyond the $50,000 mark to sit dangerously close to entry-level C-Class models.

Identical to its hatchback sibling from the front headlights to the B-pillar, the A-Class brings a traditional three-box silhouette and separate boot for customers who aren’t keen on premium hatchbacks - many of whom live in Asia or the US.

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THE INTERIOR

Initially underwhelmed by its exterior styling, we were blown away by A-Class’ interior on first impression. Home to a steering wheel pinched from the S-Class limo, the baby Benz also benefits from twin 10.25-inch displays presented under a single pane of glass similar to what you’ll find in the brand’s flagship.

Two-tone leather, textured aluminium and piano black elements in our test example were offset magnificently by customisable 64-colour ambient lighting which wraps around the cabin and key controls.

Backlit turbine-style air vents are a particularly nifty touch - turn the temperature up and they briefly glow red; drop the temp and they’ll turn blue before reverting to your preferred colour scheme.

Fully-loaded press demonstrators at the model’s international launch in Seattle featured heated and cooled seats with a massaging function, a high-definition colour head-up display, Burmester surround sound system and more. This doesn’t feel like a cut-price product.

The most important interior feature is Daimler’s new Mercedes-Benz user experience (MBUX) infotainment system which promises to revolutionise how you interact with the car.

At the risk of oversimplifying a 22-page explainer surrounding the service, there are two key elements to MBUX - how you interact with it and how it interacts with you.

The first part is relatively straightforward - those twin display screens show everything you could want to know from a car in a new and easily-grasped menu structure accessed through pebble-like controls on the steering wheel, a console-mounted control pad or by touching the right-hand-side display.

The second bit is a little trickier to explain. Essentially, Mercedes has imbued the A-Class with an artificial intelligence system capable of recognising complex speech patterns, along with your personal preferences and routines.

Looped into many of the car’s systems, MBUX allows you to reduce the climate control’s temperature by saying “Hey Mercedes,” followed by “I’m cold”, “it’s freezing” or “increase temperature to 24 degrees”. You can turn on the seat heaters with a simple request, switch between radio stations, ask about tomorrow’s weather or whether you should expect heavy traffic on the drive home.

Unlike other voice-activated vehicles which require you to use keywords in a rigid structure such as “Navigation, set destination, favourites, work”, MBUX allows you to use simple commands such as “navigate to work” or more obscure language like “take me to the office”.

It feels a little like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, both accepting and responding to you in natural phrases. Like those virtual assistants, you can ask MBUX to perform mathematic equations, look up the time in various cities or find the highest-rated coffee shop in your area.

Insiders say you can serve up complex requests along the lines of “Hey Mercedes, find me a child-friendly pizza restaurant with free WiFi”, though our experience wasn’t so seamless.

Intended to learn an individual’s speech patterns and accent to communicate with them more effectively, the system treads an interesting path by learning about your personal habits.

If you like to switch from music to catch hourly news bulletins at a certain time of the day, the car will suggest a change of station to your preferred news provider. If you call your mum every Wednesday night, it might remind you to give her a buzz, to go to the gym, or dial up your favourite take-away food on a Friday night.

Naturally, we couldn’t put all of those features to the test over the course of a two-day drive.

ON THE ROAD

Some of those safety features have a less-than-desirable effect on the A-Class' driving experience.

The steering can feel aloof and stodgy, which is unsurprising when you know it’s tasked to counteract torque steer, fight road camber and even intervene to help prevent a crash - feeding in additional lock to avoid an obstacle or even counter-steering to correct a slide. Lane departure assistance interventions are brutal compared to finessed rivals, awkwardly jerking the car back onto its preferred path, even if you’re deliberately wavering from the centre of your lane to allow more room for a parked car, pedestrian or cyclist.

We tested the car with 4Matic all-wheel-drive which brings a sophisticated four-link rear suspension arrangement as opposed to the standard car’s torsion beam rear end.

Our example missed out on adaptive dampers which will be available on local models - and should be seriously considered by anyone who plumps for 19-inch AMG wheels with low-profile tyres.

Tested on unfamiliar roads in Washington State, the A-Class serves up a better-resolved ride than its predecessor, with improved body control at speed. That said, it still feels nibbly and far from perfect at low speeds, particularly on broken roads in urban centres.

Pirelli P-Zero performance tyres serve up plenty of grip accompanied by a touch more road noise than ideal on coarse surfaces, while traction from the all-wheel-drive variant is beyond reproach on dry tarmac.

We tested the car in 2.0-litre A220 form, with a 142kW, 300Nm turbocharged engine under the bonnet. Unfortunately that engine isn’t on the way to Australia - we’ll get a more modern A200 variant powered by a 1.3-litre four-cylinder turbo engine bringing 120kW and 250Nm outputs.

Jointly developed with Renault, which provides the engine block before Mercedes installs modified internals, the new engine is good for an 8.0-second dash to 100km/h along with 5.2L/100km fuel use.

Our US variants felt reasonably smooth and refined if a little listless when asked to deliver maximum performance. A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission was excellent 99 per cent of the time, though it did serve up a couple of downchanges which were disappointingly dorky.

TMR VERDICT | OVERALL

Just like the hatchback which has already arrived in Australia the sedan shines for its interior and MBUX technology that is ahead of rivals. But it remains to be seen what the spec and driveline will look like and perform against competitors when it lands locally.  

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